Spring/Summer 1998, Volume 15.2
Dennis Vannatta (PhD, U of Missouri, Columbia) has two collections of stories published by White Pine Press: This Time, This Place (1991) and Prayers for the Dead (1994).
"Wake up, old man."
Edward Gunn looked up from his bowl of All-Bran to find his son-in-law, Jim Keogh, standing across the breakfast table from him. He must have called to Edward more than once, judging from that half-impatient, half-amused expression he favored when he thought Edward was acting even more absent-minded than usual. Edward felt his hackles rising. To be the object of the young bastard's amusement ...
"Jesus H. Christ, what do you keep hollering at me for? I'm not deaf, you know. Sitting here trying to digest my breakfast and in you come hollering like to wake the dead."
"He wasn't hollering, Pop. He was only trying to get your attention. You were off in the clouds somewhere."
It was Maggie, at the counter loading the automatic dishwasher. Edward had forgotten she was in the room.
"Well," he muttered, pushing the bowl away from him, "I'm through with this, anyway. What was it you wanted?"
"Oh, it was just that I'd heard some news in the deli," Jim said, sitting down at the table. "Somebody you know, I think, died last night. Old Nicholas Spooner. You were acquainted with him, weren't you, Pop?"
Edward's hand twitched involuntarily, knocking against the cereal bowl and causing milk to slosh over the side.
"Sure, you know Nicholas Spooner, Pop," Maggie said. "Isn't he one of you cronies down at O'Grady's?"
"Yeah, I know him," Edward said, wiping at the spilled milk with his napkin.
Jim cocked his head that way he did when he was about to say something he thought was very funny.
"It was the strangest thing, the way they tell it. Old Spooner died of a heart attack. That's not strange, of course—he was older than Moses—but what brought it on. They found him a block away from his own house, in Sid Lazarus's front yard. You remember Sid, Mag. They sat across from us at the hospital dinner. Anyway, Spooner had an ax and was chopping down Sid's Scots pines! He had two down and was whacking away on the third when Sid's wife, I forget her name, spotted him and called the cops. He was into his heart attack by the time they got there. Died last night in the I.C.U."
"How bizarre," Maggie said. "He must have gone crazy. Had you noticed anything wrong with him lately, Pop?
Edward rubbed at the table with his napkin.
"Well, maybe he wasn't crazy, exactly," Jim said, leaning back in his chair like a man all set to pontificate. "Sometimes with the elderly, hardening of the arteries can have an effect that looks like that, but what it is is the restricted blood flow to the brain causes a kind of dementia."
"Maybe he did it because he wanted to," Edward broke in.
"Maybe he did it just because he wanted to!"
Edward stood up, steadied himself, then took up his cereal bowl, spoon, and juice glass and headed for the counter. He set the glass in the cereal bowl and with his free hand began to fiddle with the lever on the dishwasher.
"Here, let me get those for you, Pop," Maggie said.
"I think I can still load a dishwasher."
"Don't be silly. Let me take those."
Maggie took the dishes from him and loaded them in the washer.
The fellows down at O'Grady's were all excited.
"I'm pumped! By God I'm pumped!" Norman Simpkins kept exclaiming as he rammed his fist into the air.
Edward shook his head. Generally quiet to the point of invisibility, Norman was making a spectacle of himself. In addition to pumping his fist and leading cheers like a Knicks fan with the camera on him, Norman insisted on greeting each arriving "crony," as Maggie called Edward's friends, with a high five—albeit a bit tenderly delivered because of Norman's arthritis. Old fool.
Still, Edward couldn't deny it, he too felt a special something—almost a giddiness—in the air. He'd gone so far as to order a second beer, even though he knew Maggie had a point when she sent him on his short walk down to the bar on 116th Street each evening with that contemptible little singsong admonition, forefinger wagging,
One beer—all set.
Two beers—you'll regret!
It wasn't that he'd get falling-down drunk or lose his way home as Terrence Cobb was always doing, sleeping it off once a week or so on Rockaway Beach. No, with a second beer came the tormenting memories. Maggie as a girl stretched out asleep on his lap in the big rocker, the length of her warm and soft from his breastbone to his knee, top of her head that he'd kiss and stockinged feet no longer than his thumb resting crossankled on his thigh. And her mother, of course, Kathy, Saturday nights laying her nightgown across the sewing machine by the window and coming to him naked, blushing, unable to lift her eyes from the floor as she stepped the four steps to the bed, even after thirty years of Saturday nights. And by God sometimes Fridays and Sundays, too, all modesty left behind once she was under the sheets with him.
Second beer memories. And sometimes even worse what he couldn't remember. Running! He had run once, be knew that in the abstract, but what had it felt like? And weight. He could see himself down at the back dock of the store, just for the exercise helping boys half his age unload trucks. Lifting, swinging, handing on, lifting, swinging, handing on, bodies nothing but pulleys and well-oiled hinges. But it was like watching a movie. He couldn't for the life of him remember what it felt like to heft weight.
Once, after two beers he thought of a little fence behind the old house he used to jump as a boy, jump as easily as breathing. He tried to think how it was done—jumping. Where did you place your feet? Did you bend one knee, lifting the other? And, forgetting that he was sitting elbow to elbow with his cronies, Edward had begun to cry.
"I'm pumped for it, I tell you, pumped!"
Edward looked around guiltily. Had it been he who'd told Norman Simpkins to shut up? He didn't think so. Still, he pushed the remainder of his second beer at a safer distance away from him.
Whoever it was who'd shushed him, Norman appeared unfazed. He raised a palsied hand to high-five a new arrival—Vincent Shaw. And then the inevitable litany began.
"Did you hear the news, Vinny?"
"About Nick Spooner, you mean? Yes, I heard it."
"The ins and outs of it, I mean. Exactly how he brought it off."
"Well, I only heard just a bit from Harry with the club foot down at the Texaco…"
"Here, let me fill you inI."
In point of fact, none of them knew more than what his son-in-law told Edward that morning. But as the evening wore on, the bare report became a story ever weightier with detail—pine chips flying and police sirens wailing and Cynthia Lazarus staring horrified out the window. And then—not just Norman but a half-dozen voices vying to take up the thread of narrative—it became something like a tall tale, with Cynthia Lazarus fainting dead away as Nick wielded his ax while singing "The Wild Colonial Boy," then perhaps a struggle with the police, and Nick dying not in the I.C.U. but in the paddy wagon being worked over by the bulls.
"Nick Spooner. Who would have thought of it? Nick Spooner!" Vincent exclaimed during a lull in the recitation.
"What makes you say that?" Edward shot back. "Why do you say, 'Who would have thought of Nick Spooner?' Who else would it be but Nick Spooner? It was all his idea, wasn't it?"
"What idea? What are you talking about?"
Edward had forgotten that Vincent wasn't a regular at the "cronies table. His wife wouldn't let him out more than once a week, the other kidded him.
Before he could think how best to explain Nick Spooner, though, Edward was distracted by Norman Simpkins's suddenly lurching up and desperately trying to get through the tangle of chairs and legs at the table. Norman was forever misjudging his bladder capacity and having to make a panicked dash—if his stiff-legged gait could be called a dash—for the men's room. Before Edward could redirect his thoughts, Reg Cash had taken up the narrative.
"Now, you don't know Nick as well as some of the rest of us, Vinny. You wouldn't guess it to look at him—all stooped as he was and getting more poorly every day from that heart condition—but Nick Spooner had been a lumberjack in days gone by. Yes, by God, a lumberjack! In the timber country of Washington when he was a young fella. Funny how he'd sit here night after night for years and hardly say 'boo,' but then here lately, he starts to fairly talk the leg off a deaf man. All about the way it smelled up there in the woods, the pine smell sharp and bitter, and cold enough in th, winter to crack the air, but pouring sweat out of your boots in the summer. Oh, but he loved it, he did, and he could swing that ax, let me tell you. don't have his way with words, of course, but he could describe it so' you'd know what it'd been like. I was telling him not two days ago—isn' that right, fellas?—how the wife and I were thinking of taking a trip to Washington ourselves, if we could work out a suitable swap for our time share condo in Florida, and he says."
"Jesus Mary and Joseph," Edward broke in, "get to the important part—his idea, the thing he kept urging on us. Vincent doesn't give a damn about your vacation plans."
"Now just hold your horses, Edward. I'm telling the story now, it's m, story, just hold on and let me tell it, will you? Jesus but you're getting cranky in your old ageI. Where was I? Oh yeah, the idea, now, Nick' idea. It was strange, I can't help thinking there was something wrong wit] him between the ears toward the end, if you know what I mean. He'd tall about the old days in Washington, and then he'd get off on this tangent about the Indians or Eskimos or whatever and how they'd put the old folk out on the ice floes when they weren't any use any more. That was bad when they were all a bunch of shitty savages, before the priests converted them. Anyway, Nick had it in his head it wasn't such a bad idea, that the old folk should have gone out onto the ice floes voluntary, like."
"Dance onto the floes," Edward corrected. "He said the old folks shouh have danced out onto the floes before their children had to force them."
"That's right," Reg nodded. "I told you he went a little crazy toward the end. Not to mention highly suspect religiously. I mean, what he was recommending amounts to suicide when you get right down to it."
It was a very quiet voice that broke in. They all turned to look at Norman Simpkins. Edward hadn't even been aware that Norman had returned from the men's room. His exuberance of a short time before had gone. Now he spoke softly, but with a certain melancholy determination.
"It wasn't suicide. You didn't understand a thing he said if you think that. He just thought a man ought to go out in a natural way. The lives we're leading—the way the old have nowadays of stringing it out past the point where there's any use to itI. It's unnatural and shameful. It's horrible is what it is—horrible."
Reg pointed a finger at Norman. "Now who didn't understand a thing he said? Nick Spooner never said a word about nothing being unnatural or shameful. He never used those words, and you're a liar if you say he did!"
"Easy, Reg, easy," Edward said, patting his arm. They were all a little afraid of Reg's terrible temper—all except Norman, who wouldn't back down.
"Did he have to say the very words? Wasn't it plain enough what he meant? Can you tell me it's not unnatural and horrible the lives we lead, horrible and shameful? Can you? Can you? But it wasn't suicide he was advocating, not at all. You should go out doing the thing you love, that's what he meant. Dance out onto that ice floe by doing the thing you love until what you love takes you. My God, can you argue with the beauty of it?"
No one answered him. Instead, they all looked away—taking a sudden interest in the neon Harp sign over the bar or the song that had just started up on the juke box or the two youngsters holding hands at the table by the door—until the old boy could finally get himself under control and dry his eyes.
Tired and a little woozy on his walk home, Edward didn't have his guard up, and Maggie, waiting for him at the door, caught him puffing and panting and wiping his face with his handkerchief.
"All right, you old night owl, how many did you have tonight?" she asked. She tried to make her voice sound teasing, but Edward detected an imperious note that set him on edge.
"I stopped at an even dozen," he said. "I'd have stayed longer but I have to get up early tomorrow for my sky-diving lesson."
"In that case, we'd better get you right to bed," she said.
She met him on the third of the five steps leading up to the front door of the house and reached out to take his arm. He jerked away, lost his balance, and started to fall backward. Maggie lunged out and grabbed him by his collar. "Whoa, Pop, whoa! That's it, that's all right now, I have you, you're all right. We have you now."
She put her arm around him and led him on up the steps and into the house.
Jim Keogh was sitting on the couch watching television. When he saw Maggie with Edward, he started to get up, but Maggie motioned him to stay where he was.
"Sit yourself. We're fine, we're fine. We just lost our balance for a second is all."
She led Edward into the bedroom—Jim's old office that they'd remodeled for him, adding a bathroom, when the stairs up to the second floor bedrooms got to be too much for him. Two or three times he tried to pull away from her, but she must have thought he was losing his balance again because she just held tighter and said, "That's OK, Pop, that's OK. We've got you, we've got you."
By the time she sat on the edge of the bed and knelt to unlace his shoes, it was all he could do to keep from kicking her.
The next instant, though, his anger was gone, lost in memory. It was the top of Maggie's head, which she presented as she knelt before him. For a moment he could feet her hair, soft and wispy and smelling of talcum powder when he pressed his nose into it, Maggie fresh from her bath sitting on his lap, ankles crossed on his thigh.
Now, though, Maggie—my God, how had it happened?—had grown children of her own, and her dear hair was streaked with gray.
When she'd finished removing her father's shoes, Maggie stood, pressed her hands into the small of her back, and winced. She looked very tired.
"The damnedest thing!" Jim Keogh exclaimed, barging into the kitchen where Edward sat, a nibbled-at Swiss-on-pumpernickel on the table before him.
"What is it now?" Edward asked.
Edward wondered at his own words, the "now" sounding oddly tremulous, as if he were expecting some momentous other shoe to drop.
At that moment Maggie came into the kitchen, said a quick "hi" to her husband, and lifted a fat turkey breast from the refrigerator. Jim seemed to be getting distracted watching her, so Edward repeated, "What is it now?"
"Oh yes. The damnedest thing. " Jim sat down at the table, took another look at Maggie and the turkey, then went on: "What is it with you and your buddies, Pop? Must be something in the water down there at O'Grady's. If that's it, you better take yours neat."
"The news, Jim."
"Well, apparently another one of you buddies has done himself in." Edward put his palms flat on the table to steady himself.
"Norman Simpkins? Was it Norman Simpkins?"
Jim shook his head: "No, that wasn't the name. It was Shayes, I think. Funny name. Dorey Shayes, maybe?"
"Yes, that's it. Darcey Shayes. I guess I shouldn't be laughing at it, but, well, it's extraordinary how the fellow died. You'll never guess."
Jim paused, but Edward said nothing, so he went on: "He was riding a bicycle! I don't know him myself, but I'm told he was very old—mid-eighties, at least. Apparently he took a bicycle belonging to his great grandson and was riding away to beat the band down Cronston. Well, he lost control and fell head first into that mailbox down there in front of P. S. 114. There's some speculation he had a heart attack or stroke and that's what caused him to fall off. Either way, he's dead now. And right after that other old boy, that Spooner fellow chopping down trees. I tell you it's the damnedest thing…."
Edward was too upset to focus his thoughts on anything much the rest of the afternoon. It wasn't until he smelled dinner cooking that it occurred to him to question the oddity of the main course: roast turkey.
In the Gunn family, turkey was reserved for Thanksgiving and Christmas alone. It wasn't that Edward didn't like turkey well enough to have it more than twice a year. On the contrary, it was his favorite meal, but because it was so special—charged with memories of parents and children and grandchildren—he didn't like to think of it growing stale from overuse. Maggie must have felt the same way because she'd carried the Gunn tradition over to the Keogh household. But if so, what was so special about this June evening that called for roast turkey?
It all became clear over dessert—another of his favorites, hot cherry pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream perched on top. Maggie was nervous and overly cheerful, and Edward had a feeling what was coming wasn't good for him. She finally got to the point as Edward was trying to get at the last of the melted ice cream and cherry juice with the tines of his fork.
"Pop, you know I've been thinking," she began. "I'm a little ashamed of us—Jim and I—to tell you the truth. Making you walk to 116th Street and back every night when we're sitting right here on our duffs with two cars in drive…"
"It's only four blocks, four and a half," Edward said hopelessly. He knew it was no use.
"Yes, I know, but stillI. The truth is, Pop, I don't like to think of you walking by yourself at night. There are those street people down there, and what if you fell and hurt yourself?"
What if I did? Edward started to say, but he didn't have the energy. Maggie talked some more, and then Jim said, sure, Edward could just give them a call when he was ready to come home, at which point Maggie shot him a killer look. No, that wouldn't work, she said, because Pop might forget to call and just take off on his own. That would defeat the purpose of the whole thing. No, they'd just decide on a regular time to come get him. Ten o'clock, say. She and Jim weren't getting any younger, Maggie said, forcing a laugh, and couldn't keep the old night owl's hours.
Of all the things Edward could think to do, nodding seemed to take the least effort, so that's what he did. He nodded, and Maggie settled back in her chair and sighed as if the whole thing had gone much better than she'd expected.
Down at O'Grady's that evening, the mood was wild. One moment the cronies acted like young men in a nation on the verge of war, and the streets ringing with the call to arms. At the next, they seemed be waking from a troubled sleep to find themselves the last stragglers in a city about to be overrun by the enemy.
Edward tried to sit back and watch and listen with some detachment, but he too spun and darted between two poles of anxiety: Who will be next? Who will be left?
Each of his cronies, Edward was sure of it, had been as shocked as he when they heard the news about Darcey Shayes. When his son-in-law had told him another of the group had gone and done it, Edward had instinctively thought of Norman Simpkins, and why not? He'd seemed so moved by events the night before. Pumped, by God. But there he sat, agitated but mute, alive as ever—if that indeed was living.
Darcey Shayes, though. He'd been a lawyer in his day, but none of the fellows held that against him. He was as nice a gent as you could ever want to meet, would buy a round whenever Notre Dame won, would sing the Fight Song for you if he'd had a Guinness too many. Usually, though, he was one of the quiet ones. He rarely said much of anything, never spoke of himself at all. Edward couldn't recall anything of his reaction to the news of Nick Spooner's death. Was he even at the bar last night? Edward guessed so, but he wouldn't swear to it.
Darcey was a big man, bigger than Nick Spooner, and with his round, meaty face looked the image of health and vigor—when he was sitting, at any rate. When he stood, though, it was a different story. He'd stand in one spot, seeming to have trouble getting his upright bulk stabilized, and then would take short, shuffling steps, holding his hands out slightly before him as if to break his fall if he stumbled.
Suddenly, Edward thought of Kathy, weak from cancer toward the end, shuffling along with her hands out before her in much that same manner. He took a gulp of beer and concentrated on the voices around him.
"What the hell was he doing on that devil of a bicycle, that's what I want to know. Can anybody tell me that?" Freddy More was saying.
Indeed, Edward wondered, how could you square the picture of Darcey Shayes tottering fearfully along with the report of his riding pall-mall down Cronston? And what could the bicycle have meant to him? It couldn't have been a thing he did for a living in some past life, surely, like Nick Spooner chopped trees. Maybe he'd been a bike racing champion, trained for the Olympics, perhaps. Or maybe he was thinking of a bike he'd gotten one Christmas as a boy, rode it slicing through the December winds without a care. They'd never know what it meant to Darcey—riding that bicycle—but what did it matter? It was a thing he'd loved, and he'd done it, brought it off, by God.
"Well, after all, he did it, didn't he? Went out doing the thing he loved best—give him credit for that."
Edward started at Branch Crabb's words, and he was seized by wonder and, yes, fear that they all seemed to be thinking the same thing. There was silence at the table as they sat looking at one another, reading each other's thoughts as easily as you'd read the Daily News, Edward felt.
Who's next? they all were thinking.
Edward couldn't answer that one, but there was one thing he knew with a sudden and piercing conviction: He did not want to be last.
The evening hadn't ended well. He'd meant to be waiting outside when his son-in-law came to pick him up at ten, but he'd lost track of the time, and Jim Keogh had walked right up to the table before Edward realized he was there and told him it was time to be heading home.
"But I haven't even finished my beer!"
"Well, chug-a-lug, then, Pop," Jim said, laughing amiably but at the same time checking his watch.
Edward had taken him at his word and tried to chug the beer. He could have done it standing on his head when he was a young man, but now he was used to nursing one hours at a time. The beer went down the wrong way and then came back up, him spitting and sputtering, beer coming out his nose and tears in his eyes. Jim Keogh got a good laugh out of it, but it was the fellows laughing along with him that hurt, and Edward left with no kind word for anyone.
Back home, Edward was short with Maggie, who—he realized even at the time—was just asking a friendly question or two, and she rolled her eyes and followed Jim up the stairs to their bedroom.
Rolled her eyes. Edward had been strict with her when she was a little girl—probably too strict, but then she was their only child, and he and Kathy worried about every breath she took. As she grew into adolescence, she wasn't the rebellious sort, but, lord, could she roll her eyes. "The Champion Eye Roller of All Time," he dubbed her. And she still could do it, couldn't she? And it still meant the same thing: You're an irritating, silly, irrelevant thing, and who needs you? Indeed, good question.
He lay in bed for hours, it seemed, exhausted but unable to sleep, mind leaping from one thing to another like some athlete gone mad. The old memories were there, but more troubling were the questions. What did it mean, anyway, to say, I am alive? At what point did a person's life become an indignity to him and an irrelevancy to everyone else, and at that point wasn't it best to just let go? Easy to say—let go—but how did a fellow do it? Nick Spooner had showed one way, and Darcey Shayes had followed, and now….
Yes, a gauntlet had been thrown down. Did Edward have the courage to pick it up? Pick it up how, though? Do what? What did Edward love best of all that remained to him? He'd never chopped a tree, and he didn't give a hang for bicycles. There'd been a stretch of a dozen years or so when he'd enjoyed playing golf with some of the fellows from the K of C, so maybe he should steal a driver from Jim Keogh's bag in the closet and go slice himself to death.
"Don't be an ass," he snorted to the darkness.
Edward threw the sheet off and sat up in bed. It was a damn warm night for this early in the summer.
He walked over to the window and lifted the sash. A cool, soft breeze wafted in, and with it the smell of the ocean and the low murmur of waves on the shore.
It was always near—Jim Keogh's house being at the end of a beach block—but perhaps because it was ever-present, Edward rarely thought of the ocean. But it came back to him like a memory long lost but suddenly reclaimed, a memory of something he loved.
And that of course is what gave him the idea.
The waters rose up over Edward's feet, paused about his ankles, then slowly receded. The cuffs of his trousers were wet. Back at the house, he'd pawed through his chest of drawers looking for a set of swimming trunks before giving up and cursing himself for a fool. It must have been thirty years since he'd been in the ocean.
Once, though, the beach had been his and Kathy's chief recreation. Not that they'd had it hard like a lot of couples, Edward couldn't claim that. His father had been a successful businessman, and Edward owned one autoparts store already before he and Kathy were married. Still, in the early years most of what they made went into the business or the new house, with not much left over for theater tickets or trips to the Poconos or whatever. So, when the weather was right, they'd walk to Rockaway Beach on Sundays, his only day away from the store. Take a picnic basket and a few bottles of beer, make an all-day affair of it. No doubt there'd been times when it got a little dull, but Edward couldn't remember it that way now. Now, what he remembered was bright sun, warm sand, and cooling breezes, and waves that tossed them laughing and tumbling over each other, he and Kathy, and later little Maggie running laughing in and out of the shifting edge of the sea.
He could hear her now as if she were splashing through the surf toward him, shrieking in delight and terror, "Jellyfish, Daddy, jellyfish!" Only she'd had trouble with her 'Ls" and it came out "Je-eefish, Daddy, je-eefish!" He could feel her bathing suit, ribbed fabric cool and damp, press into his bare flesh as he picked her up and hugged her.
They'd walk out into the ocean, Kathy on one side of Maggie and he on the other, each holding one of her hands, and lift her laughing and kicking over the waves rolling in.
And once, he and Kathy had swum five blocks, from the 126th Street beach to the 131st Street beach. They had been far out from shore, floating easily in the trough of the waves, when, without planning it and for no reason at all except they were young, in love, and stronger than fear or reason, they began to swim and didn't stop until they'd swum five whole blocks! For an instant Edward could feel their languorous fatigue as they came up out of the water, sat panting on the beach, then shared an Italian ice.
At the thought of the Italian ice, Edward began to cry.
Did he have the courage to walk out into the water for that one final swim? Could he really bring himself to dance out onto the ice floe? Yes, he thought so, but, oh, it would be hard dancing.
It was the things that you loved that made leaving even the memory of them so bitter. Otherwise, why the hesitation? Edward suspected that every instant of existence, not just love and joy but pain and loss and even grief over loss, was a miracle. It was a possibility that exhilarated and horrified him.
But what to do? Edward turned and looked across the beach, all silver and shadows under the moon, at the dark, silent bank of houses. No, he had come too far to go back there. He turned again to the sea and walked out until a wave lifted him and rolled him over, and then over again. He thought the wave would deposit him back on shore, but instead in a moment he found himself floating in the trough of the waves, and then he was swimming. He was surprised at how quickly the old stroke came back to him. It seemed only yesterday he was swimming side by side with Kathy. Everything seemed as near as yesterday.